Published On: Thu, May 23rd, 2019

At Riot, the walkout was just the beginning

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The Riot employees who staged a walkout to protest the company’s policies of forced arbitration aren’t done yet. Management declined to toss out the practice for employees currently tangled in litigation. Now, walkout organizers intend to push the issue further by petitioning employees and presenting their arguments to the company’s board of directors.

This most recent plan comes after the walkout on May 6th, during which more than 150 employees gathered outside the developer’s LA offices. Employees who participated are hoping to end the company’s current practice of forced arbitration, a move that requires employees to resolve disputes internally rather than take outside legal action.

One organizer tells The Verge that because the company and its employees can’t reach an agreement on the issue, “we are appealing to the board to advocate for us. Forced arbitration has been criticized and is being changed at a number of companies.” Riot workers are currently circulating the petition. Although organizers originally planned to present the petition on Friday, they’re now holding it while they decide how to deliver it.

“Riot has always aspired to be at the cutting edge of game companies,” reads an excerpt from the petition, given to The Verge. “We have also stated that we want to be a world leader in diversity and inclusion. To do both, we need to make shifts not just in our game production, but in our employment practices. Making this change even when there’s a clear cost to the company unequivocally shows Riot’s commitment to changing itself, both to current and future Rioters.”

Kotaku published an investigative report last year detailing sexism and discrimination within the company. Currently, the fight against forced arbitration revolves around two women attempting to take action against Riot for gender discrimination. Jocelyn Monahan, one of the walkout organizers, describes time at Riot now measured as “pre-Kotaku and post-Kotaku” report.

“I think that this particular set of actions raised our focus on arbitration just because it’s such a clear, concrete thing that can be changed to increase trust between workers and management here,” she says. It’s a straightforward step that could help women and minorities at Riot feel safer at their workplace.

Riot’s woes are well-documented, but its problems are not unique in the game industry. Sexism, workplace abuse, and general misconduct by executive powers are a reality of gaming or larger tech companies. But employees banding together to protest has become a flashpoint for the industry, a public example of how unified workers can fight for rights. Monahan says that organizers want game developers at large to understand that they too can come together, collectively bargain, and help other workers who might otherwise feel isolated and without options.

“This isn’t about being anti-Riot or not wanting to be here,” Monahan says. “We’re doing this because we deeply believe in Riot’s mission and we love this place and we want to make cool stuff together. And we know that we are part of Riot.”

As employees move to collectively demand change, an obvious question has arisen: is Riot considering unionization? According to Monahan, the walkout was not a formal step toward a Riot union. “It’s not your workers versus management narrative,” she says. Employees are fighting internally to make their company better, but it’s complicated.

“Obviously, [a walkout is] a tactic that was used along the route to organizing a union. There are a lot of barriers to unionization in the game industry that I do not feel equipped to handle yet personally as an organizer,” she adds, pointing to issues like contract labor. “We really need to hammer out some of the issues specific to game before that conversation starts.”

Reached for comment, a Riot spokesperson pointed The Verge to a blog post on the company’s website that says “given the complexities of ongoing litigation,” it would not change employee agreements while in active lawsuits. “We remain committed to having a firm answer around extending an opt-out to all Rioters when active litigation concludes,” the post reads. At minimum, it says, it will give new employees the chance to opt out on individual sexual harassment claims as the conversation continues.

“To be fair to the people that helped make the walkout happen and to everyone that participated,” the Riot spokesperson told The Verge, “I think it’s really important to point out that while we didn’t change the arbitration agreement, some of the other changes — like the new committee we’ve set up to regularly connect concerned Rioters with leadership or allowing Rioters to be part of redrafting the code of conduct — wouldn’t have happened without the walkout.”

Asked if Riot would reconsider its stance on forced arbitration in relation to its ongoing litigation, the spokesperson said they didn’t want to speculate about the future. “We’re looking forward to continuing listening to and talking with Rioters about a range of topics, including arbitration.”

Internally, Monahan says, employees are split on the company’s decision to keep forced arbitration in the case of its ongoing litigation. Some are content to let it rest, she says, because the company has promised changes in the future. Others are still committed to pushing management on the issue. Monahan and her fellow organizers have no intention to quit now. Public support, rather than boycotts, from players and game industry workers alike is the best-case scenario for those who want to support the people fighting back. Forced arbitration is a growing concern among employees who cite hypothetical situations or philosophical conversations about its impact.

For Riot employees, there’s nothing hypothetical about it. “There are current employees here who have to come to work and look in the face the person that they have accused publicly of misconduct,” Monahan tells The Verge. “There are people here who are suffering currently.” That Riot would refuse to step in because of active litigation, she says, feels like a failure to those who’ve been wronged: Riot will “chalk those as a loss and kind of write them off,” but do better later.

“That’s unacceptable,” she says. “They have people that they are supposed to protect that they’re proposing to just write off because it’s too complex and that is shocking.”

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